Spooky Art: Cat’s Nightmare by Louis Wain (Interpretation and Analysis)
Today is National Cat Day! That means we’re going to spend some time celebrating felines through art, and there’s no better artist for that job than Louis Wain.
Wain was a true devotee of cats. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a piece of Wain art that didn’t include a cat. Purportedly, Wain began drawing cats to cheer up his ill wife, but it’s clear that cats soon became an obsession for him. Early in his career, Wain typically drew anthropomorphized versions of cats performing human activities. Many of these drawings are really charming and funny; however, his cats became increasingly abstract and surreal after Wain began to suffer from mental health problems. He was eventually confined to a psychiatric hospital, where he spent the last years of his life drawing cats in the garden. Today, some experts believe that Wain suffered from schizophrenia; although, it’s impossible to know for sure.
Since Halloween is almost upon us, I thought we’d look at a particularly spooky Louis Wain drawing: Cat’s Nightmare. The drawing depicts two cats tucked into bed; they peer over their covers at a crowd of owls that surrounds the bed. The two groups of animals stare at each other intently, although the cats seem far more distressed than the owls, who study the felines with interest.
It’s intended to be a humorous image, but why would a cat have a nightmare about owls specifically? Aside from the fact that having your bed be surrounded by owls is inherently weird and creepy, it turns out that owls and cats have a rather tense relationship! In fact, cats generally have adversarial relationships with all birds because, well, cats like to hunt them. Owls, however, turn the tables on cats. In case you didn’t know, owls will eat just about anything that moves and they’re shrewd hunters. In fact, great horned owls can carry up to four times their own weight, which means they could quite easily carry off a twelve pound cat! Although, I’m glad to say that they would have some trouble with my fifteen pound kitty. Plus, owls and cats have kind of similar facial features (the big eyes really do it), which makes the drawing extra weird and funny.
From an art historical perspective, I couldn’t find any reason that Wain decided to include owls in Cat’s Nightmare (dogs would have been the more obvious choice), but they certainly create a compelling image. Of course, it’s also entertaining to see cats snuggled up in a human bed experiencing the rather human problem of nightmares. Anthropomorphizing cats was, after all, the main driver of Wain’s artistic success.
We can only hope that all the cats out there have sweet dreams on National Cat Day!
Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on October 29, 2021.